Consumer Strike

There is something we can all do to save the planet:
stop buying and stop flying.

What do we tell our children about the future our planet? If you are a parent or otherwise have a lot to do with young people, you need to ask yourself this question. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find an acceptable answer. I refuse to lie, but I also cannot tell my students or my own children that there is no hope for the future.

Some years ago, I started looking for a more optimistic and yet honest answer. I soon realized that it was not to be found in science or technology. We have known everything we need to know about sustainability and global warming for more than 40 years and new technologies will also be bound by the basic laws of physics. Without a fundamental transformation of our society and economy, there is no hope.

A lot of intelligent and knowledgeable people have reached the same conclusion. If you read authors like Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Jason Hickel, Kate Raworth, James K. Galbraith, George Monbiot, Joseph Stiglitz, or even Al Gore, you realize that the problem is well understood. When humanity expires, the cause of death will not be a matter of debate.

Unfortunately, understanding a problem does not solve it and a vision is no substitute for a project plan. One thing you learn in industry is that every project meeting needs to end with a discussion of the next steps, making sure that everyone is on the same page and knows what to do. What is missing from the climate discussion is a plan for changing things fast. The idea of a consumer strike attempts to fill this gap.

The problem we are facing has to do with power. As was always the case in history, our society has been built to benefit the people in charge. Typically, they also invent an ideology (or religion) to justify things being the way they are. The kings of old were supposedly anointed by God. The rulers of today are blessed by the invisible hand of the market. The story is probably as old as humanity itself: the people in charge do not want change things, the others do not have the power to do so.

The inspiration for a consumer strike came from the American author Tony Morrison. In a conversation with Cornel West, she described how president George W. Bush called upon Americans to continue shopping after 9/11. In other words, the government wanted people to continue to fulfill the only function they have in modern society: that of consumers. A video of the conversation is available on Youtube.

Noam Chomsky described the election of Donald Trump as a corporate takeover. I was as chocked as everyone else, but I also started to think about what Tony Morrison said. What would happen if every person who disapproves of the Trump administration were to stop flying and stop buying? It would be fun to see the faces of Trump’s corporate backers if the sales of clothes, smartphones, cars, and flight tickets were suddenly to drop by 50%.

A consumer strike is nonviolent resistance for the 21st century. It is democratic, legal, effective and you can start tomorrow. By not buying stuff, you immediately reduce your own ecological footprint, save money, and lower your stress level. You also help spring the trap that global capitalism dug for itself: without growth, the financial markets will implode.

The important thing to understand is that most of the wealth today is based on expectations. The share price of a company is based on expectations of its future profitability. As soon as a company announces that it expects its business to decrease, the share price will drop through the floor. Facebook recently lost 120 billion USD of market capitalization because investors were unhappy with the growth of the company. Imagine what would happen if the network were to lose a large part of its marketing revenue.

A consumer strike is direct way of taking back power from the corporate world. If nobody needs to borrow money, banks have no power. If nobody buys oil, oil companies can do nothing. The social networks, whose only purpose it is to manipulate people’s behavior, will suddenly become worthless.

To succeed, is not enough that we stop consuming ourselves. We need to help others breaking their addiction to consumption. There are many reasons to do so:

  • By consuming less, you increase your quality of life.
  • By consuming less, you punish the banks. Let the others waste their money on interest and credit card fees. I only buy things when I need them.
  • By consuming less, you do what everyone knows that we will have to do anyway. Do you want to change your lifestyle voluntarily or wait for the government to force you?

We need to create a society where flying and overconsumption are socially inacceptable. To some extent, this is already happening. My sons and their friends already laugh at people driving around in large cars. Let’s start ridiculing the rich. I think, therefore I do not buy!